Washington — While President Joe Biden was quick to hail Thursday’s strike-avoidance agreement as a win for America, it was also a huge win for him politically, allowing Democrats to avert what would have been an economic disaster ahead of November’s midterm elections.
Under pressure to choose between work and business, the president pushed hard to work together.
Urged by a strategic late-night phone call from Biden — and fortified with Italian food — corporate and union negotiators spent 20 hours in intense conversations at the Labor Department. They reached common ground in the early hours after a plea to act for the nation’s common interests, averting a strike that would have shut down railroads across the country.
By keeping the trains running, Biden overcame a major economic threat that doubled as political risks. His fellow Democrats already face an uphill battle to maintain their tight grip on power in Congress amid rising inflation. Biden’s approval rating, while improving, is still underwater.
The initial deal, which still requires approval by dozens of unions, would raise members’ salaries by 24% over five years and improve work schedules and health care in a way Biden said it recognized the “dignity of their work.” Rail companies can continue vital operations and avoid a costly shutdown, while being in a better place to hire and retain staff.
“This agreement allows us to continue to rebuild a better America with an economy that truly works for workers and their families,” Biden said Thursday in celebratory remarks in the Rose Garden. “Today is a win, I mean honestly, a win for America.”
Members of one union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers 19, voted to reject the initial agreement, but the IAM agreed to delay any strike by its members to allow more time for possible additional negotiations and for other unions to vote.
White House officials were concerned that the rail shutdown, no matter its length, would have serious economic consequences just as voters make up their minds before the November elections. Instead, the settlement now provides Biden with an opportunity to show that his administration is delivering to voters, as terrible news coverage brings relief at the cost of only a few canceled Amtrak trains.
Through the conversations, Biden was able to avoid the turmoil without offending classes of workers or businesses. Biden, his advisers and Democrats across the country know that the broadest possible coalition is needed to help candidates compete in midterm elections that have historically favored the party out of political power.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said Biden had deliberately chosen not to dictate the terms of the agreement to either side.
“The president’s focus was on making sure a contract that satisfies everyone — and it also prevented a major disruption in our economy,” said Walsh, who moved the last six hours of negotiations into his office.
What at first seemed like a worst-case scenario eventually turned into a collective sigh of relief.
“This is the best outcome the Biden administration can hope for,” said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who has conducted research on the labor movement. He noted that union requests for sick leave and reliable scheduling are in line with Biden’s own values.
“Unlike previous railroad labor disputes, management has never had to put real pressure on unions, but instead can act as an honest broker looking for a compromise between managerial and union positions,” Rosenfeld said. Bonuses with wider action. “
Commercial interests also praised the administration’s efforts. John Drake, US Chamber of Commerce vice president for transportation policy, said Walsh came to the negotiating table with a level of experience and stakeholder confidence. This made it easy to complete the deal.
“The fallout from the rail strike was so disastrous that we couldn’t even begin to rank it,” Drake said. “That’s a 100% win.”
Not everyone celebrated. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had proposed a measure on Wednesday that would force unions to accept a contract. He criticized Senate Democrats for blocking his proposal, only to have aides remain silent on Thursday when asked if the deal was good for the economy.
Biden did his best to advocate for organized labor, often asking local union members to come forward to deliver speeches across the country.
Ryan Buchalski of UAW Local 598 presented Biden Wednesday at the Detroit Auto Show as “the most union- and worker-friendly president in American history” and someone who “kicks the working class.” Puchalsky returned to the pivotal picket strikes of the 1930s by auto workers.
In the speech that followed, Biden realized he wouldn’t be in the White House without the support of unions like the UAW and IBEW, saying that auto workers “made me dance.”
About 16% of voters in the 2020 election came from union families, who backed Biden 56% to 42% in the narrowly contested race, according to AP VoteCast.
The president’s approval took a big hit starting last year due to inflation exacerbated by supply chain disruptions for cars, furniture and other essential goods emerging from the pandemic recession. The problems have worsened this year with shortages of infant formula and shrinking global supplies of food, oil and natural gas after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Consumer inflation hit a 40-year high in June, only to start declining in the following two months.
Biden’s popularity is starting to recover with the fall in gasoline prices. A new poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows his approval improving from 36% in July to 45% in the latest survey.
Estimates put the daily cost of rail closures at $2 billion. The shutdown could have left raw materials for factories, fuels, and even chemicals needed to treat wastewater stranded. This would have been a devastating blow just eight weeks before Election Day, which could limit control of the House, Senate and state governments.
Liz Schuller, president of the AFL-CIO, said the deal will ultimately have an impact on the midterm elections because workers want officials to stand up for them. She said the combination of the pandemic, rising prices and economic inequality has left many workers on the brink of collapse wanting a different social contract.
“That’s what this election is about — rewriting the rules of economics,” Schuller said.
Author Christopher Rogaber contributed to this report.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.